The Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English puts early usage of the term ‘Nightwatchman’ at around 1946 and cites an article in The Daily Telegraph in May, 1948, as an early example in the media.
Whether it came into being to describe a long established tradition or was some fancy post-war invention is less clear, but ever since, the nightwatchman has been a staple tactic deployed in Test and county cricket.
Let me say from the outset that the concept is totally bogus, utterly stupid and has always annoyed the hell out of me ever since I saw Mike Hendrick come to the wicket in this role. Hendrick had a top Test score for England of 15 and was promptly bowled within a couple of deliveries. Sending a much worse player to the crease made no sense to me then and it makes no sense now.
Proponents of the idea point to batsmen who have gone on to make a decent knock. I saw Alan Knott come in as a nightwatchman against New Zealand and rack up 96 but Knott was an excellent player and could easily have batted top four for club and country. The idea that his was a better wicket to potentially lose was delusion.
So, yes, sometimes they do go on to score well, in the manner of Jack Leach recently, but such incidents are the exception. And anyway, if they are good enough to score well, then they’re not a proper nightwatchman, are they? The whole point is you stand to lose a less valuable wicket than the top-order player he’s come in ahead of.
Let’s just refresh ourselves with the thinking behind the concept.
You’ve lost a top-order batsman and there are only a few overs or balls before stumps, so you send in someone from down the scorecard to basically block out the remaining balls and stop the team being risking losing a more valuable wicket.
That’s the idea, as I’m sure you know, but it’s all absolute bollocks isn’t it? Every single aspect of the idea stands no scrutiny.
It is undermined by the fact that you’re putting in a worse batter and so are actually more likely to lose a wicket anyway! And then what do you do? You have to send in the top-order player anyway, or pluck other, even worse lower-order players to try and see out the day.
Even if you don’t lose the wicket that evening, that means the new day starts with your nightwatchman still at the wicket and this creates another dilemma. They’re presumably selected for their role because they are at least decent defensively. But that’s of no use at the start of play. You don’t want him blocking everything because he’s only got two shots in his locker. So now what?
I’ve seen a nightwatchman start throwing the bat around in a desperate attempt to knock a few quick runs, not bothered if they get out, knowing they will be replaced by the better player who should’ve gone in the previous day.
I’ve also seen them continue to put a dead bat on everything for a couple of hours to the frustration of the captain. I’ve even seen a captain telling him to get out because there’s a run chase on. That’s how mad the whole concept is.
The chances are you lost the wicket cheaply anyway, so what on earth was the point?
Apparently it has been statistically proven to not produce better outcomes, though frankly, there are so many variables in each game and from match to match that I’m not sure how you can assert that with any certainty.
Surely any top-notch batter worth their salt would fancy themselves to be able to play out a few balls in the gloaming of the day and would be insulted if it was suggested otherwise. The idea that they need protecting from danger by a batter who de facto is not as good and therefore more disposable is the triumph of madness over sanity.
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